Fixing the news: The gruelling work of journalism's unsung heroes in MENA
This article is part of The New Arab's States of Journalism series, a sustained exploration of freedom, repression, and accountability in MENA and global media landscapes. Read more of the series' articles here.
When a foreign journalist needs help to safely find and make sense of local sources, they hire a fixer. In journalistic lingo, a fixer is a colleague with ground-level expertise and a network of contacts who arranges and interprets interviews, provides background information, and generally serves as an intercultural mediator. International news could not be made without fixers.
Fixers are valuable to news organisations because of their local relationships and ability to secure up-close access to frontlines, exclusive locations, and criminal activities. Yet whenever they work with foreign reporters they also put those relationships at risk. Suspicion of journalists as peddlers of “fake news,” if not enemy spies, is a global phenomenon.
When a fixer vouches for a reporter and the latter - justifiably or not - asks uncomfortable questions or points their camera the wrong way, the fixer risks burning bridges. Fixers are often the ones an angry source or state agency calls when a news article they helped produce raises hackles.
Fixing is especially dangerous work when covering conflicts in places like Syria and Turkey. Fixers rarely have the protection of foreign passports, formal contracts with international news organisations, insurance policies, or diplomatic support that their clients enjoy.
"News organisations tend to treat fixers as second-class citizens, not only in crisis situations, but also in the everyday practice of newsmaking"
One fixer was abducted with a team of European journalists in Syria and held for weeks by the radical Nusra Front, whose “judge” accused him of treason and espionage for helping the foreign media. Nusra Front released the Europeans after their government paid millions in ransom, but as far as he knew, the fixer’s freedom was never a point of interest in those negotiations.
As that story suggests, the reporter-fixer partnership is marked by inequality. News organisations tend to treat fixers as second-class citizens, not only in crisis situations but also in the everyday practice of newsmaking. Foreign editors and reporters control the framing of the news: what topics to cover and how to explain them to international audiences.
Even though international news organisations rely heavily on fixers to fill in the blanks about specific local realities, they tend not to trust fixers to be objective or guide the overall editorial direction of news stories.
The way that Western journalists understand objectivity and professionalism stacks the deck against fixers. To be objective, the mainstream thinking goes, journalists should rise above the fray of local biases and worldviews and align instead to the ethics and values of their profession.
Foreign biases and worldviews, which in the Middle East tend to be Orientalist stereotypes that justify neo-imperialist American and European policies, do not raise the same concerns about professionalism.
This one-sided ideology of objectivity means that paradoxically, fixers’ local-ness is both their greatest asset and their greatest liability. News organisations need fixers’ local connections to activists, officials, militants, businesspeople, criminals, refugees and so on to gain access, but those same connections make fixers suspect in the eyes of foreign reporters and editors.
Even the label “fixer” is controversial. Many see the label as a demeaning way that foreign journalists suggest that fixers are not true professionals and draw an arbitrary boundary (often corresponding to racial and colonial hierarchies) between themselves and their local colleagues.
In practice, the line between fixer and reporter is blurry. In Türkiye, for example, many fixers are experienced journalists who left careers in the domestic press as the government cracked down on independent media. Many of them research topics and interview sources, providing summaries and quotations that their clients then incorporate into articles on which only the latter receive byline credit and compensation.
Relationships between fixers and client reporters range from cynically transactional to mutually transformative. Some reporters are “parachutists,” dropping in to report a big story and then moving on to the next country. In these short-term relationships, reporters expect fixers to feed them information and contacts to satisfy their demands in exchange for a day rate.
In one case, a European and a Turkish journalist travelled to Şanlıurfa in southern Türkiye. They hired a Syrian fixer to arrange interviews with Syrian women who had married Turkish men. He brought them to a house where a group of women was assembled, with a single man present who glowered silently at them from a corner of the room.
The fixer cheerfully translated the women’s stories about meeting their absent husbands, but his clients felt something was wrong. They asked around among neighbours, who confirmed their suspicion that the house was a brothel and the man was a pimp. A twinkle in his eye, the fixer admitted that they might be sex workers and had fooled him as well.
Along the Türkiye-Syria border during the heyday of media attention on the Islamic State (IS), there was even an à-la-carte market for valuable sources. A fixer might sell a TV crew access to an IS bride or defected fighter - or at least someone who would convincingly play the part - for a lump sum of thousands of dollars.
"Every fixer has horror stories of clients short-changing them without recourse, refusing to cover travel expenses, or haggling over hours worked as the fixer puts their life at risk"
It is easy to wag a finger in these cases at the fixers, but it is the news organisations that incentivise them to satisfy clients’ expectations however they can, and however unrealistic. And in the Syrian case, fixers are themselves often refugees in dire straits.
A system in which fixers get their hands dirty while clients look the other way also perpetuates the perception that fixers are untrustworthy and so reinforces the supremacy of foreign reporters over their local colleagues.
Not all fixer-reporter relationships are so exploitative, though. There is a lot of variation in fixers’ backgrounds that shapes how they do their jobs and the ways foreign colleagues perceive them. Some reporters are also committed to supporting the professional development of the fixers they hire and fostering more collaborative, less extractive reporting practices.
Sometimes a reporter and fixer form a deep, long-term partnership and learn from each other. The fixer learns how to pitch and produce a story that will appeal to international editors and audiences, opening pathways to upward mobility for them within journalism.
As one Syrian media worker reflected on his work with a foreign reporter, “You know, when I started working with [them], I wasn't a journalist. I was a fixer. But ... [they] made me a journalist.”
The reporter meanwhile learns to transcend their initial stereotypes and gains a better understanding of local realities - which cannot happen unless they trust the fixer to challenge their assumptions and suggest original story ideas rather than catering to the reporter’s superficial expectations.
Savvy fixer-reporter teams also learn to strategically use the fixer’s local-ness and the reporter’s foreign-ness in combination to navigate threats of censorship. In Türkiye, the national press faces heavy repression, but foreign journalists enjoy relative immunity and freedom to report critically on the government - notwithstanding cases of brief detentions, deportations, and denial of entry.
Fixers use their trusted local connections and expertise to gather information and create content for news stories that they could not safely publish in their own names; this is the silver lining of invisibility. In fact, responsible foreign reporters transparently discuss with fixers when and how they should be credited.
On the financial front, the story is more complicated than the simple exploitation of fixers’ labour. Turkish fixers with established reputations earn more in a few days with television crews than foreign freelance writers make selling a couple of articles per week or than reporters of the Turkish press take home as a monthly salary.
Some fixers use this income to subsidise passion projects as documentarians or activists and to support extended families in times of displacement or economic crisis. Yet every fixer has horror stories of clients short-changing them without recourse, refusing to cover travel expenses, or haggling over hours worked as the fixer puts their life at risk.
In recent years, there has been a growing conversation about the responsibilities of international reporters and news organisations toward local media workers. This is a healthy development, but the discussion needs to expand beyond individual considerations of empathy and collegiality.
Journalists need to consider the structural reform of their profession at both the cultural level, asking who is trusted to be objective and exercise editorial control, and the economic level, by understanding what kinds of incentives push news contributors to follow or breach ethics.
Fixing inequity in the field will not only improve the working conditions for fixers but also lead to better, more authentic and informed journalism.
Noah Amir Arjomand is the Mark Helmke Postdoctoral Scholar in Global Media, Development, and Democracy at Indiana University and the Centre for International Media Assistance. He is the author of the book Fixing Stories: Local Newsmaking and International Media in Turkey and Syria, published by Cambridge University Press in 2022.
Follow him on Twitter: @narjoman